The Many Dangers of Hunting for Purple Squirrels

When posting an open job, conventional wisdom says the worst thing you can do is fail to grasp the key functions of the position; in omitting important skills from the job description, you’ll undoubtedly make a hash of the search by considering unsuitable candidates and ultimately hiring the wrong person. Last month, this conventional wisdom was upended when a Silicon Valley CEO posted a nanny position that – at over 1,000 words – was so over-specified, overwrought, and reeking of privilege, it became eminently clear that the very worst thing you can do is post a job that goes viral and subjects you to worldwide ridicule.

The job description in question is to take care of 10-year-old twins in Menlo Park, CA. But the requirements go on for pages and include gems such as:

On this Valentine’s Day, love is important, but just not as important as river swimming, and definitely not as important as finding Mary Poppins. But if this is comedy, it’s dark comedy. Because this Silicon Valley CEO has brought home what CEOs have been doing at work for over a decade: turning the hiring process into a hunt for purple squirrels.

Each online job posting generates hundreds of applications, and sometimes thousands. So adding dozens of education, experience, and skill requirements to allow applicant tracking systems to filter out marginal candidates isn’t inherently daft. But the byproduct of including every conceivable qualification is that the job description paints a picture of a perfect candidate, i.e., a purple squirrel. Because you’ve probably never seen a purple squirrel, the result is disappointment – either in settling for an imperfect candidate or failing to fill the position.

Look at this marketing manager position in Denver (45 distinct requirements), or this product manager job in Houston (34 requirements), or this cybersecurity analyst position in Miami (33 requirements). As one college senior recently posted on LinkedIn about cybersecurity analyst positions: “I’ve lost count of the number of ‘junior’ cybersecurity role advertisements I’ve seen that want 1-3 years of experience and a CISSP. Anyone who knows anything about the CISSP knows you need minimum five years of full-time experience.” Incorporating every conceivable qualification in job descriptions helps explain nearly 7 million unfilled jobs while tens of millions of talented and motivated workers – particularly new and recent graduates – struggle with underemployment. Hiring in 2020 is analogous to browsing photos of People’s Sexiest Man (or Woman) Alive before going on nothing’s going to match up.

Hiring’s transformation to a hunt for purple squirrels is partly a result of digitization and the shift to posting jobs online. But it’s also an outcome of corporate America’s decades-long struggle for cost reductions to drive shareholder value. Downsizing or eliminating training programs and streamlining middle management have cratered career paths employees used to follow from the mailroom to the corner office. Last week in The Atlantic, Yale Law School’s Daniel Markovits mourned the loss of systematic training programs (“at IBM… a 40-year worker might spend more than four years, or 10 percent, of his work life in fully paid, IBM-provided training”) and laid blame on shortsighted management consultants praying at the altar of efficiency. The upshot, according to Markovits, is that “corporations… replace lifetime employees with short-term, part-time, and even subcontracted workers, hired under ever more tightly controlled arrangements, who sell particular skills and even specified outputs, and who manage nothing at all.” In shifting from hiring candidates for careers to hiring for long menus of specific skills, employers have sold out the future for the present.

America’s second most valuable company is a Prime example. Amazon’s Career Choice program partners with community colleges to provide fulfillment center employees with free training programs in logistics, technology, and healthcare, delivered in warehouse classrooms. Couldn’t be more convenient, right? The problem is that Career Choice is completely disconnected from the tens of thousands of open jobs at Amazon itself. In its job postings, Amazon is also hunting for purple squirrels, with nary a mention of Career Choice as a viable pathway or relevant qualification. Career Choice conveys to hundreds of thousands of Amazon fulfillment center employees that mobility is only possible via outplacement.

I’m hardly the first to point to these problems. Cries for employers to change their ways are coming fast and furious, including two just last week. First, in Harvard Business Review, two people I have a lot of respect for – Former Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and General Assembly Founder and CEO Jake Schwartz – argued that “as the labor market evolves, the expectations of employers must too. Poach-and-release is no longer a sustainable model for talent acquisition. Investments in talent that transcend our individual interests can help to build a far more sustainable and fruitful economic ecosystem.” And in VentureBeat, Fredrick Lee, Chief Security Officer of Gusto (someone I don’t know, but who must be cool because he goes by “Flee”), made a compelling case that in order to close the cybersecurity skills gap, “we need to do more to uncover potential applicants from varied backgrounds and skill sets, instead of searching for nonexistent ‘unicorn’ candidates.” They’re not wrong. But if I had a nickel for every time someone said employers should do something differently, I'd have enough nickels to play awesome math games with the Menlo Park CEO’s 10-year-old twins. What’s more, employers know what they should do, and they don’t do it. According to a Randstad survey of more than 800 HR leaders, 91% of companies say it’s their responsibility to provide reskilling to meet business needs, but only 22% actually do.”

There can be no question that, in hunting for purple squirrels, employers have caused great injury, not unlike former a certain former Fortune 500 CEO / Vice President of the United States renowned for hunting accidents. But as I’ve noted previously, paraphrasing a former unpopular Secretary of Defense (and mentor of the aforementioned Vice President), we're sending young people out into the labor market we have, not the labor market we might want or wish to have at a later time. Moreover, we’re going to be living under the current administration for another 11 months, and unless Bernie Sanders is elected to dismantle capitalism as we know it, the forces that have transformed hiring to purple squirrel hunting are so powerful that the labor market is unlikely to blithely head off in an entirely different direction. So for concerned policy makers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and educators, the question must be: what can be done now?

The fundamental problem is that our current systems of postsecondary education and workforce development are not designed to produce purple squirrels. What we call “education-up” models – starting with educators developing curricula – can’t possibly address the strange and elusive combinations of education, experience, and skills specified in today’s online job postings. Even if the labor market information were readily accessible, no one working at a college, university, workforce development program, or even bootcamp, would want to combine all these requirements into a single curriculum. And even if they could, schools have great difficulty satisfying experience requirements.

So rather than pushing individual colleges to launch one-off partnerships with employers that cannot possibly scale, it’s critical to recognize that the most directly responsive strategy to the degree and experience inflation yielding millions of purple squirrel job descriptions isn’t online degrees or micro degrees or MOOCs, or competency-based learning, or even bootcamps or last-mile training. It’s new “employer-down” models aggregating demand for talent across hundreds of employers – and providing that talent built-to-order – that are turning the tide on crazy purple squirrel requirements.

Revature is a perfect example. Several years ago, the software developer staffing company combined last-mile training with staffing to serve up purpose-trained talent to clients on a “try before you buy” basis. When Revature started down this path, every client insisted that Revature developers have bachelor’s degrees. But because Revature remains the employer of record for up to two years – allowing clients to try staffed resources before they hire – last year they were able to push back on that purple squirrel requirement, among others. This year, Revature will staff hundreds of community college graduates, and next year it should be thousands. Talent Path, a last-mile training division of IT staffing firm Genuent, has partnered with Santa Monica College. Talent Path client Enertia Software was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying “it was a big advantage to give potential workers a trial run to ensure they’re a good fit.” And at Techtonic, a software development firm that launched last-mile training several years ago with the first DOL-approved registered apprenticeship program for software development, 42% of apprentices do not have a bachelor’s degree.

Because we all must do what we can to return sanity to the labor market, consider this column a formal offer of childcare services to the aforementioned Silicon Valley CEO:

Dear Silicon Valley CEO,

I’m really good at Excel and figuring out when to use credit card points vs. paying cash. I love body surfing and swimming in rivers. And because I’m more than willing to work on a try-before-you-buy basis, you’ll have plenty of time to decide whether I’m right for the position. And to be honest – and you may have seen this line coming a mile away – we could use the time, ‘cause I’m not that strong a swimmer.